History's Blind Spot; the West Has Myopia towards Jews

Article excerpt


One startling revelation of Michael Beschloss' engrossing, new book, "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany," is the apparent extent to which FDR was able to prosecute the Second World War against the Nazi killing machine without giving much thought to the actual killing. That is, while subsequent generations consider the Third Reich synonymous with its nearly successful attempt to eradicate a people, Roosevelt displayed, as Mr. Beschloss puts it, "a "tendency to shunt Hitler's war against the Jews to a separate compartment of his mind."

Even after the U.S. government had become aware of the Nazi extermination infrastructure, administration efforts to inform Americans about German atrocities didn't mention death camps. Roosevelt himself remained silent on the subject. And, in private, he engaged in what Mr. Beschloss describes as "silly rants about Prussians, military uniforms and marching and did not mention genocide at all -even though he had privately learned more about the Holocaust than most Americans of the time."

It must be said that Mr. Beschloss also makes it cloudlessly clear that the singular greatness of FDR's leadership, both in fighting Germany to victory and in mapping out a lasting peace, outshines such flaws. Still, they may continue to perplex the modern reader. Despite the historian's best efforts to track FDR's possible motivations, it remains downright bizarre that Hitler's war against the Jews didn't figure into the American president's vision of Nazi Germany's wider war against the democracies-in-arms. The question is, why? Maybe the full explanation lies beyond the scope of a historian. Maybe only a Tolstoy or Twain can reach beyond what is documented to reel in, flay and bone the inner FDR to anyone's satisfaction.

Leaving aside what is non-footnotable, it's hard to let go of Mr. Beschloss's conclusion that the 32nd president was inclined to compartmentalize the war on the Jews, a tendency that at least helps explain Roosevelt's inertia over aiding Jewish refugees or bombing the tracks to Auschwitz. These are lapses of considerable moral dimension. But there are also political implications to FDR's partly blinkered vision, some of which have surprisingly contemporary applications.

This came to me while reading Harvard literature professor Ruth R. Wisse's assessment of the recent, particularly European, resurgence of anti-Semitism. Writing in the October 2002 issue of Commentary magazine, Mrs. Wisse sets out to compare the poisonous font of anti-Semitism today, the Arab-Muslim world, with the Nazi source of yore, and ends up offering a novel explanation of the hateful creed's potency: "Modern anti-Semitism," she writes, "achieved its power as a political instrument through its opposition to liberal democracy itself - as personified by the Jews. …